Denver Museum of Nature & Science: A Journey Through History and Discovery

June 4, 2023

The Denver Museum of Nature & Science is a captivating institution that traces its roots back to 1868 when Edwin Carter, a passionate naturalist, established a small cabin in Breckenridge, Colorado. Carter's unwavering dedication to studying the birds and mammals of the Rocky Mountains led to the creation of one of the most comprehensive collections of Colorado fauna at that time. The story of the museum unfolds through significant milestones, remarkable discoveries, and a commitment to scientific research and public engagement.

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The Birth of a Collection and the Formation of a Museum

Edwin Carter's collection quickly gained recognition, and in 1892, prominent citizens of Denver expressed their interest in relocating his remarkable assortment to the capital city. Carter agreed to sell the entire collection, which included not only his fauna collection but also an impressive array of butterflies and moths and a stunning assortment of crystallized gold. These three collections laid the foundation for what would eventually become the Colorado Museum of Natural History, officially incorporated on December 6, 1900.

Opening the Doors to Public Exploration

After years of preparation and construction, the Colorado Museum of Natural History finally opened its doors to the public on July 1, 1908. The inauguration of the museum marked the beginning of a never-ending journey of discovery. Thousands of visitors flocked to witness the treasures within its walls. The museum quickly hired a director and staff, who worked tirelessly to build more exhibits and develop engaging public programs. By 1918, the museum had expanded with the addition of a new wing, and research efforts were well underway.

Unearthing Ancient Mysteries: Contributions to Archaeological Research

In 1926, a groundbreaking discovery catapulted the Colorado Museum of Natural History to the forefront of archaeological research. A crew working near Folsom, New Mexico, stumbled upon stone projectile points alongside the bones of an extinct bison species known as "Folsom points." This find provided evidence that humans had inhabited North America over 10,000 years ago, significantly earlier than previously believed. This pivotal discovery marked the beginning of the museum's enduring contributions to the field of science.

Wildlife Dioramas: Immersive Encounters with Nature

The Denver Museum of Nature & Science gained worldwide recognition for its awe-inspiring wildlife dioramas. During the mid-20th century, under the visionary leadership of director Alfred Bailey, museum staff embarked on expeditions to six continents, collecting specimens from diverse ecosystems. Back at the museum, talented workers meticulously recreated these habitats, utilizing painted backgrounds, specialized lighting, and intricately crafted reproductions of plants and flowers. Today, the museum proudly showcases 89 wildlife dioramas throughout its halls, providing visitors with captivating encounters with nature.

Milestones of Growth and Innovation

As the museum reached its 50th anniversary, it had already welcomed over a million visitors. The building continued to expand, and it was rechristened as the Denver Museum of Natural History. A year later, in a small room equipped with a star projector and fabric dome, the museum unveiled its first planetarium. Over the years, it evolved into the digital Charles C. Gates Planetarium. The museum's 75th anniversary witnessed the opening of Colorado's first IMAX theater, enriching the visitor experience with immersive films. In 2010, 3D technology was integrated into the IMAX experience, adding a new dimension to cinematic adventures.

Active science takes place at the Museum every day. Our curators, collections managers, archivists, conservators, librarians, researchers, and lab assistants—along with 600 volunteers—are not only responsible for conducting research but also creating opportunities for citizens to become actively involved in science. The education staff creates compelling programs and experiences for millions of guests and schoolchildren that inspire a passion for exploring and understanding our natural and cultural world.

The Denver Museum of Nature & Science has become a renowned museum because of the tireless commitment of its staff, volunteers, members, donors, guests, and the citizens of Colorado, fulfilling our founders’ dream of creating "one of the great entertaining and educational institutions of the country."

The museum continues to evolve and adapt to the changing needs of its visitors and the scientific community. In recent years, new exhibits have been introduced, covering topics such as climate change, space exploration, and the interconnectedness of ecosystems. The museum's commitment to accessibility is evident through initiatives that make science more inclusive and engaging for people of all backgrounds and abilities.

Volunteerism and Community Engagement

One of the museum's notable ongoing research projects is the study of biodiversity in Colorado. Scientists and volunteers work together to document and understand the rich array of plant and animal species found in the state. Through field expeditions, DNA analysis, and collaborations with other institutions, the museum contributes to our knowledge of Colorado's unique ecosystems and advocates for their conservation.

In addition to research, the museum plays a vital role in education. Its programs reach students of all ages, from preschoolers to adults. Through school field trips, interactive exhibits, and engaging workshops, the museum sparks curiosity and fosters a love for learning. The museum also offers online resources, virtual programs, and traveling exhibits, ensuring that people across Colorado and beyond can access its educational offerings.

The Denver Museum of Nature & Science is not just a repository of artifacts and specimens; it is a living institution that actively contributes to scientific discovery, education, and public engagement. It serves as a gathering place for the community, where people can come together to explore, learn, and be inspired by the wonders of the natural world.

As the museum looks towards the future, it remains committed to its mission of preserving and sharing knowledge, igniting curiosity, and fostering stewardship of the Earth. By embracing innovation, collaboration, and inclusivity, the Denver Museum of Nature & Science continues to be a beacon of scientific exploration and a beloved institution that enriches the lives of all who visit.

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